flow and the red desert

One was called simply “The Track”, and the other “The Red Desert”.  The were they places that Wulguru kids hung out after school in the early 80’s.  The Track was a network of dirt tracks criss-crossing a gully behind the local primary school, while the Red Desert was a vast (or at least it felt that way) area of eroded red gravel trails in the foothills of Mt Stuart.

For a Townsville 10-year-old, these places were magic. We’d race home from school, dump our bags, grab a biscuit and a bike, yell out “see you Mum, we’re going to The Track” and be out the door.  Those hours of messing about on bikes, doing jumps and skids and having races with whoever else showed up that day shaped our childhood.

Later as a teenager living in Brisbane’s western suburbs, the story wasn’t much different. A narrow downhill bushland trail a couple of hundred metres from home turned into a race track where we’d meet neighbourhood mates to race bikes down the hill, putting the stopwatch to work to determine who was the day’s fastest.  Lots of fun, and the occasional gravel rash and one memorable crash resulting in a cracked collarbone for a visiting cousin were the results.

Kmart BMX bikes, Repco 10 speed ‘racers’ and the roadsters of the 80’s were our weapons of choice, dirt trails through the bush our playground, and hours of fun that fostered friendship and brotherhood the outcomes.

Forty-odd years later, and my weekends follow a now familiar pattern. I meet up with a bunch of mates, ride bikes down dirt trails through the bush and then tell stories for hours afterwards.  The tools of course are different; gone is the Kmart BMX to be replaced by eye-wateringly expensive mountain bikes, dripping with technology you wouldn’t believe. The stopwatch has been surpassed by GPS-equipped cycle computers or smart phones measuring performance to the nth degree.  At its heart though, it’s the same story four decades on: mates, bikes, bush, adrenaline….and occasional skinned knees or dislocated fingers.

It’s not that bike riding has been a life-long constant for me in the way that sports or hobbies are for some people – more that I’ve rediscovered what was a childhood love later in life, and uncovered mountain bikes designed to do what we did on completely unsuited bikes back in the day.

The riding itself, is amazing. When you hook into a trail that is in great shape, maybe with a little post-rain moisture (resulting in what we know as ‘hero dirt’), with bike and rider in sync, the sensation of speed and the challenge of control is hard to beat.  As the bike leaves the dirt over a drop or jump, or tyres scrabble for grip in fast corner, the heart beat increases in time with the adrenaline.  I love getting on the bike and exploring bush tracks – at least as much now as in those childhood years. 

As good as the riding is though, the company makes it even better. The guys I ride with I’ve mainly known for years. We’ve each navigated life and love, family, work and hobbies in parallel, reconnecting now over handlebars and the obligatory post-ride coffee (or in my case, chocolate milkshake). I wouldn’t swap it.

All of this reminds me of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s description of “flow”. He describes it this way:

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

(Flow, 1990, p3)

That’s the sensation I get riding a mountain bike when everything is at the limit. But I’ve also experienced it in a work context when a project or presentation or workshop was going just perfectly – when the challenges of the task at hand and my own capacity and performance were perfectly matched. You might notice it even in parenting, in those rare moments when your approach to raising your kids matches perfectly the challenges they’re experiencing. You might find it surfing, or skiing, or singing or dancing. The rest of the world fades away, challenge and capacity are perfectly matched, there is immediate feedback….these are some of the characteristics of the flow state that Csikszentmihalyi describes. Flow, he says, is:

“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”

(Flow, 1990, p4)

To be not only conscious of the flow state as it finds us, but to seek it, to put ourselves in the right situations, with the right skills, facing the right challenges…that could be addictive.

Of course, there’s a shadow side too – when the challenge or difficult facing us far exceeds our competence and we find ourselves in misadventure, or the other way around that leads to boredom. But lets save those for another day.

Today, I’m thinking about flow. Finding it on a mountain bike trail as a fifty year old. Finding it in the red desert as a kid. Finding it in family and workplace. In speaking or presenting or offering leadership. In love. In life.

Let it flow.

in plain sight

I ride bikes a bit, walk a bit, run a bit. And because I’m essentially a creature of habit, those attempts to fight off the middle-aged spread often see me following the same path week-in and week-out.

One of the mountain bike trails I ride I have now been down 242 times. On another the count is 172. That’s a lot of trips over the same bit of ground, past the same scenery. I almost feel like I know every tree, every branch, every rock.

For all that I reckon I know those trails inside out (what’s the phrase…I know them so well i could ride them blindfolded? I don’t think I’ll give that a whirl!) I also think that same familiarity means that I’ve stopped noticing. There’s the possibility that when I ride the same path often enough, I stop seeing my surrounds.

It might be the same where you walk, or along the roads you drive every single day. We can become immune to our surroundings, disconnected from them, oblivious to them.

Naturally if something big changes, we notice. If you sneak in and add a new jump to my favourite trail, I’ll notice it (right before I crash!), and if a new house goes up overnight on my afternoon walking route, I’ll likely notice that too. Yesterday I found a new roundabout on a road I’ve driven hundreds of times before…but not travelled for a while. I noticed it.

But that’s not usually how change happens is it. Change often happens slowly. Incrementally. Millimetre by millimetre. The trail slowly widens to make a corner easier, the dirt wears away revealing a little more rock each time to make it a little rougher, the soft-fall in the playground is scattered one bark-chip at a time until it’s not quite as safe anymore.

These things happen in plain sight. And unless we’re specifically looking for them, they’re not easy to spot. Unless we occasionally ride the trail intent on noticing what’s new…maybe we’ll never be aware.

I reckon life can be a little like that too. The way I treat my family members can change little by little, almost imperceptible, until I’ve done damage to the relationship. My work ethic can slip a fraction here, and a fraction there, until I’m not quite delivering. My spiritual life might slide – I skip some prayer time here and there and all of a sudden it’s a week, or a month, or a year since I prayed.

There’s a few things that I think have maybe happened this way in my own life. Maybe I need to take a ride down the trail intentionally looking to see where change has (unintentionally) occurred.

What about you?

it’s just a trail

Recently I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to Tasmania with a bunch of guys to ride mountain bikes for a week or so. Yes, indeed, I do realise how privileged I am to be able to do so. It was an amazing week.

We rode in two places, Blue Derby (which I’ve ridden before and know and love) and Maydena Bike Park. If you like riding bicycles on dirt trails among rocks and trees, you should put both these incredible places on your list.

Now before the rest of this will make sense (if indeed it has any chance of that) you should know that when it comes to mountain biking, I’m relatively average. I ride regularly at local trails around my city and suburb, I have a nice bike, and I enjoy it – but I’m not particularly special. I’m not the kind of guy you’ll see on those YouTube videos hurtling down some vertical descent, or starring in World Cup or Enduro World Championship races all over the globe. I also don’t really do jumps…I like it when my tyres are in contact with the ground. Really I’m just a guy who goes riding with his mates and has a good time. If I don’t crash, I’m generally happy. I even made my own hashtag to describe my level of competence: #veryaveragetrailrider

So when preparing for Tasmania, it was with a certain degree of trepidation. This is “proper” mountain biking country.

Continue reading

some days are hard

strava screenshotSome days take you by surprise.

As training for the marathon ramps up, and the impact on my legs bites hard with the higher workload, I’m discovering that not every day is a “feel good” kind of day.

On Friday morning I hit the road with my brother for an early morning bike ride.  A bit of cross training is helpful and bike riding is my cross-training weapon of choice.

We went for a not-too-hilly route of around 30km with time limiting our options (and that time was limited even further when it took us 15 minutes for us to decide that yes, we could indeed ride in the rain!).

It was our first ride together for a while and I was excited to get out and about…but that quickly turned to frustration as I discovered a pair of legs that just wouldn’t do what they normally can.  An average speed nearly 15% lower than normal on a fairly short ride told the story.

It seems to me, that can be just as true in other aspects of our lives as well.  Some days things just don’t go according to plan.

We head out the door feeling fine only to run into a day that just doesn’t work. Words don’t flow, jobs don’t turn out right, the kids are even more off-the-wall than normal.

Some days are hard.

The next morning I had a longish run scheduled, but definitely didn’t feel like going running. It was early, cold and dark and that memory of dead-leg day was fresh in my mind.  I lay in bed for quite a while in the pre-dawn, arguing with myself.

I knew I’d beat myself up all day if I didn’t go, so dragged myself off the pillow and staggered off down the street.

It didn’t start much better than the day before, but over the first km or two, things loosened up and I started to find my rhythm again.

By the end of the run I was cruising, enjoying the crisp early morning air, saying g’day to the other early morning runners and cyclists, and thoroughly enjoying myself.  I can’t put a finger on what had changed, but the difference was stark. I even had enough energy for a little hard push at the 15k mark to see what speed I had in the legs.

Some days are great.

It got me to thinking that sometimes, even as we get moving in the morning and head out the door, we can’t know what the day holds.  The key for me, I think, is to breath deeply, lean into God, and stagger forth into the day, determined to deal with whatever comes my way.

Training this week:

Riding: 28km @ 23.2km/h, 362m climbed

Running: 18.1km @ 5.34 p/km, 105m climbed (a shorter “long run” after 4 weeks of 20k+)

Running: 8.0km @ 5.16 p/km, 77m climbed

Riding: 39.5km @ 27.5km/h, 257m climbed

Running: 10.1km @ 5.22 p/km, 88m climbed

The Week Ahead:

Aiming for 22-24k long run this Saturday, normal mid-week 8-10k runs, and hopefully a 40-50k ride Monday.  End of next week I’m in Cairns for work for a couple of days so might pack the shoes for some tropical warmth!

Looking forward to cheering from the sidelines as Sheri, Riley and a whole bunch of friends and family members run and walk the Mother’s Day Classic this Sunday.

The Preparation:

This week I’ve been thinking about food. What to eat before I run, what to carry with me (in the form of energy gels) to avoid going into shutdown due to lack of energy.  I’m going to start using the same brand that the Gold Coast Marathon provide…just to make sure they taste ok (well, as ok as energy gels can taste).

Body is in good shape. No trouble with feet, shins, or the eternally dodgy left knee.  So, so tired…but otherwise good.  The only real training questions are whether (a) my training plan has enough mileage in it; and (b) I can keep the feet and legs in good shape.

T-8 weeks!